Monday, December 1, 2014

Mongkut: The Modernizing King of Siam

King Mongkut (Rama IV)
The 19th century saw a new era of colonization and imperialism. Europeans scramble to take many lands as possible. The British and the French were the most active and powerful. India had bowed to the British. China had been dismembered by the western powers. In Southeast Asia, one kingdom survived the onslaught- the Kingdom of Siam. Much of its freedom was credited to its wise king – King Rama IV or better known as King Mongkut.

King Mongkut (1804 – 1868) was the King of Siam (1851 – 1868). His rule saw the preservation of the independence of Siamese independence. Through diplomacy, he charmed the west to let Siam remain free. Along with diplomacy, he began the modernization of his kingdom. His name became also wel-known outside Thailand with his portrayal in Hollywood and the story of King and I. Through calculated liberal policies and peaceful negotiations, Mongkut became a widely respected and celebrated monarch of Siam or modern day Thailand.

Mongkut was the son of the second king of the Chakri Dynasty. On October 18, 1804, King Rama II and Queen Sri Suriyedra had gave birth to a son, Prince Mongkut. Mongkut was also the grandson of the founder of the Chakri Dynasty, King Rama I. at first, King Mongkut had no prospects of becoming the King. Simply because he was not the eldest son. King Rama II choose Mongkut’s elder brother Prince Thap to become the next King. Prince Thap became King Nangklao or King Rama III in 1824. Mongkut, on the other hand, continued to be educated well. 

At the age of 19, he was sent to a Buddhist Monastery. His stay alongside with the monks proved to serve him well. Inside the monastery, he became a scholar. He studied Buddhist scripture, including the Pali Text. However, his mind curious could not be satisfied by Buddhist scriptures only. He wanted to learn more. He wanted to learn more things outside Buddhism. However, the conservative Buddhist monks would not venture into new knowledge.

To quench his thirst of knowledge, he founded his own sect – the Thammayut Nikaya. His sect aimed to learn more outside traditional Buddhism. They truly wanted to become real intellectuals. Through the help of Christian missionaries, they learned different languages, including other Southeast Asian, English, Latin, and other European languages. They also studied science, mathematics, literature, philosophy from both east and west. Mongkut, most especially, became active in his scholastic pursuits. He contributed articles to the newspaper Siam Times. But Mongkut did not just locked himself in books. He ventured across Siam. He traveled the Kingdom, inquiring to new cultures and also problems of the local people. Eventually, his travelling allowed him to be realistic. But another result of his travels was his famous discovery of a piece of Thai history. During one of his travels in 1833, he discovered a stele with the inscription describing the reign of the Sukhothai King Ramkhamhaeng, one of the first great rulers of old Thailand.

In 1851, while he lived a life of a scholar in his late 40’s, event in Bangkok would change Siam and his life forever. In January 1851, King Rama III became ill. Question of succession became the hot topic.  The nation was in a critical time. Imperialism was on its heights. In China, the mighty Qing army fell in the hands of the British. Its sovereignty greatly disrespected and forced to sign an unequal treaty. On March 15, 1851, with King Rama III continuing to be ill and dying, the Phra Khlang, Dit Bunnag, a member of the wealthy and powerful Bunnag family, convened a meeting of top officials. Who would be the next king became their topic. Prak Khlang placed his support to the brother of the King, Prince Mongkut. He knew that Mongkut was qualified and vowed his support with his life. With the Bunnags supporting Mongkut, other officials became silent and did not opposed. By the end of the meeting, it was decided that Mongkut would succeed King Rama III. A messenger was then sent to Mongkut’s monastery. There, the messenger asked Mongkut the question of whether he accepts the position of King. Mongkut, accepted it. And a guard was placed outside his temple until the death of King Rama III for his protection. On April 1851, King Rama III passed away. Mongkut ascended as King Rama IV.

To consolidate his position, he began to place his allies. As a sign of gratitude for Dit Bunnag’s confidence of him, he granted him the title of Chao Phraya. After receiving the title, he retired from public life years later. Meanwhile, Dit Bunnag’s sons became top officials as well. Chuang Bunnag became Chao Phraya Si Suriyawongse and held the office of Chancellor, Minister of War and the Southern Province or Kalahom. Si Suriyawongse would remain influential in the government even after the reign of King Mongkut. Si Suriyawongse’s brother, Khan Bunnag became the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the treasury as well. To further strengthen his throne, he placed his brother, Prince Pinklao, another strong contender to the throne, as the Second King. 

With his throne secured, he then faced his first formidable challenge from the west. In 1855, Sir John Bowring, Governor of the British colony of Hong Kong, on board the HMS Rattler arrived in Bangkok to forged a trade deal with Siam. His timing was impeccable. Just in the west of Siam, Britain waged a war against Siam’s once archenemy – Burma. Mongkut and Si Suriyawongse showed hospitality and courtesy to Bowring. Bowring did the same to the King. Nevertheless, even with civility, tensions remain high. Mongkut and Si Suriyawongse knew the stakes were high. The British were just around the corner. After the talks, Bowring left Mongkut with the terms of the trade agreement and gave thirty days to reply.

The Treaty created a divide among the officials. Some were outrage for its inequality. Many saw it as dangerous to the finance of the Kingdom. But Mongkut and Si Suriyawong se saw it as a necessary in order to keep the Kingdom free and safe from the destruction and humiliation that was happening to their neighbors. One small piece to loose for a bigger cause.

After the thirty day deadline, Mongkut and Si Suriyawongse agreed and signed the unequal Bowring Treaty on April 1855. Otherwise known as the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce, it was unsurprisingly a trade deal advantageous to the British. Under the agreement, Siam would give extraterritoriality rights to British citizens. Land owned by British citizens would be taxed low. The Siamese government had to abolish transit duties and its monopolies. Had to impose ad valorem tax of 3% to import goods and 5% tax on export goods. Prohibitions were to be lifted on rice export. Opium would also be given entry to Siam. The only consolation that Siam had was that it was allowed to have a monopoly on Opium.

Following the Bowring Treaty, Siam signed new similar trade deals with other countries in the following years. In 1856, on behalf of the French government, Charles de Montigny signed a treaty with Siam. On the same year, American envoy, Stephen Mathon, signed Treaty of Amenity, Commerce, and Immigration with Siam. More followed, the Danes in 1858; the Dutch in 1860; Prussians in 1862; the Swedish, Belgians, and Italians in 1868.

The effects of the Bowring Treaty to the government revenues were substantial but not devastating. Because of lower tariffs and lose of monopolies, the basic source of government revenue, Siam’s budget became low. Nevertheless, Mongkut and his minister found ways to recover loses. A government monopoly on opium was established alongside with alcohol and lottery. To compensate for low export tax on rice, Siam increased its volume. Trade was encouraged. As a result, within a year, government revenues returned to the conditions before the Bowring Treaty. In addition, it allowed Siam to become the largest exporter of rice. And with confidence gain from it, Siam signed similar treaties with the following mentioned countries.

Mongkut survived the Bowring Treaty, but in order to keep Siamese freedom and sovereignty, he must do something more. He knew that imperialist westerners preyed on weak countries. In order to not to be seen as vulnerable, Siam had to modernize or become a colony. Mongkut then began the modernization of Siam. He began with infrastructure development in order to promote economic development. Ports, harbors, and warehouses were built or improved. Mongkut supported the construction of roads to connect the Kingdom. With road building came telecommunication development. Telegraph wire laid alongside the roads, improving inter-connectivity. Siam had numerous rivers and to harness the benefit of it, riverine transport also underwent development. Steamboats were used in the rivers, improving transportation and commerce. Trade and commerce further flourish with the establishing of the Royal Mint that issued new currency based on metallic value. Thus making it convertible to other currencies. Following infrastructure and communication improvement, Mongkut also wanted to improve the standard of living of the people. The education system of the Kingdom was improved. New subjects in science, technology, philosophy, and language were added. Western medicine saw acceptance under Mongkut’s guidance. The most visible example of it was Dan Beach Bradly’s vaccination of Siamese from small pox, a killer disease during those days. The military also receive a share of modernization. Modern weapons were bought and distributed among soldiers.

Even tradition, clothes, and mindset must change in order to become presentable to the foreigners. They must look civilize so foreign powers would not call them barbarians and discredit bringing civilization as part of the reason for imperialism. Mongkut asked his nobles and officials to wear western style close. Mongkut himself dress in western style clothes, as seen in his official portrait. Some practices also began to change. Under Mongkut, the tradition of closing doors and windows during the passing of a royal entourages ended. But most importantly, Mongkut knew if the country had to continue to modernize, his family must share his enthusiasm. He made his family and relatives to learn from the west. His brother, the Second King, Prince Pinklao pushed his interest further by naming his son to the first United States President, George Washington. Mongkut also wanted his children to be taught with western style of learning. He hired a British widow from Singapore to become the tutor of his children. Her name was Anna Leonowens.

Leonowens’ experience in Siam became a subject of Hollywood’s glamor. Leonowens taught Mongkut’s 60 children. His favorite was Mongkut’s eldest son, Prince Chula. His diary and story became the basis of the play, The King and I. It then inspired numerous plays and movies. However, the contents of Leonowen’s were deemed inaccurate, therefore, resulted to the portrayal of Mongkut as a barbaric king turned civilize as Leonowen stayed.

As modernization continued, Mongkut’s diplomatic offensive continued. He allowed freedom of religion and the arrival of missionaries. He exempted foreigners from procrastinating in front of him during meetings and audiences. He also sent embassies to western countries, like France. He wrote correspondence to other western leaders like Pope Pius IX and Abraham Lincoln. His correspondence with Lincoln became also well known when the Siamese King offered the American president an elephant. Lincoln courteously declined.

Nevertheless, there were still some incident of western intervention against Siam. For example, in 1862, when Siam supported a claimant in the important lands of Terranganu, the British sent warships to bomb Siam’s allies and some of its ships. In 1863, French increased their influence and control over Siamese held Cambodia.

Much were, however, needed to be done. Issues of slavery were not answered completely by Mongkut. Many royal strict protocol remained. Civil service and local administration remained inefficient, corrupt, and plagued by nepotism. Mongkut knew this issue but choose not to radically reform many conservative issues in order to prevent the Siamese people from getting culture shock. Also, a rapid and radical phase of modernization might cause division and political instability in the process. Nevertheless, many of this issue would have to be Mongkut’s successor’s problem.

In September of 1868, a rare total eclipse happened which would also mark the end of Mongkut’s reign. He decided to watch the rare astronomical event in Wa Kor. He invited foreigners to travel with him and witness the event. However, the event, which was supposed to be relaxing, became eclipse by the sudden illness that hit King Mongkut. Mongkut contracted malaria. For days, he laid dying. And on October 1, 1868, King Mongkut, Rama IV, passed away at the age of 65. He left his throne to his young son, Chulalongkorn.

Mongkut’s legacy was Thailand itself. Without the efforts of Mongkut, Thailand of today of would be different. It might had been under a colonial power and lose all freedom and sovereignty. In turn, Mongkut is highly regarded and respected by the Thai people. Shown openly when The King and I was banned from showing in Thailand because of its wrong and degrading portrayal of the King. Mongkut also started the modernization of Siam. His reign started it and his son, King Chulalongkorn, continued it. From Mongkut’s foundation, his son would cement Siam’s faith as the only free country in Southeast Asia during the height of imperialism.

See also:
Chulalongkorn (Part 1)
Rama I 

Church, P. (ed.). A Short History of South-East Asia. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons (Asia), 2009.

Mishra, P. The History of Thailand. California: Greenwood, 2010.

Owen, N. (et. al). The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2005.

"Thailand-Mongkut's Opening to the West" Accessed on June 15, 2013.

"King Mongkut Rama IV" Thailand's World. Accessed on June 15, 2013.